Pittsburgh

Years

Getting There

pittsburgh.jpg

                                       

 

 

T

his is the story of how I finally came to leave my hometown, Naperville, Illinois, then still a small and, in a certain way, sleepy, Midwestern town about 30 miles west of Chicago.  (I've written about my early days there in a previous memoir: Naperville Days.)  This place and its near surroundings was a most familiar and comfortable space, one that I had without any reflection whatsoever assumed that I would occupy always, as had my father, my grandfather and even my great grandfather.  He, it seems, had made his way to America in the late 1800s from the area of Alsace Lorraine which had become part of Germany after the Franco Prussian war.

Alsace is a beautiful place on the plains just west of the Rhine only a couple hour’s drive north from Zurich, with Strasbourg as its capital.  On the border between Germany and France, the place seems to switch nationalities more often than ordinary; it reverted to France after the Second World War.  Nevertheless the people there stay pretty much the same.  When I once visited the area I could sense strong correlations with Naperville in the territory itself as well as in the food.

However, more than simply leaving my home and becoming transplanted willy-nilly to Pittsburgh, this is the story of a boy growing slowly and, in retrospect, belatedly, into a man.  Belatedly because, during the time that I write of here in this article, when I reluctantly began the struggle to move, I was in my mid-twenties, already married, with the beginnings of a family.  Ordinarily this fact alone would imply that this boy-man ought already to have moved to the man side of that usually fraught transition.

My father, William Valentine Goetsch, born of course on Valentine’s day, in 1907, always signed his name W. V. Goetsch.  Perhaps the name Valentine was somewhat uncomfortable for him in our very conventional Midwestern milieu, a tich too sweet or frivolous for that down-to-earth place.  He didn’t use the name William either, or Bill, as I do.  Instead, somewhere along the line, perhaps from his many sisters, he had acquired the nickname that his friends, and even my mother, always used: Bud.  It was a comfortable American designation; in those times it was common to say “Hey Bud,” or “Hey Buddy,” when speaking to someone whose name was unknown and, when I was born, in the mid ’30s, during the depression, “Hey Buddy, can you spare a dime” was already a cliché.

About 5’10, and of medium build, though quite solid because of years of hard work, my father was a pleasant-looking, nearly-handsome man with a full head of black, wavy hair and strangely full, bowlike, almost feminine lips.  He never grew a mustache or a beard, shaving routinely every day using a special-purpose shaving mug with a wet brush to soften his whiskers; then he took an ordinary safety razor to them.  His eyes, as mine, were a kind of steely, blue-gray.  He had rather large, and protruding, ears, accentuated by the weekly haircuts that at that time was normal, and he had a scattering of small acne scars around his jowls.  I received both these markers.  

His slight shortfall from ‘good-looking’ was, I think, due more to mannerism than physiology.  In the German manner, he had been taught to be polite, and when he met someone for the first time he put a proper smile on his face, shook their hand, and nodded his head politely—had he been oriental, it might have been a tight bow.  Yet he was not just being polite, he was curious of the new.  That he always wore a pair of serious-looking, wire-rimmed bifocals may have contributed to the good-looks deficit as well.  But more than any other single thing he had an unnerving preoccupation about him, his private thoughts so uppermost in his mind that he often failed to acknowledge his surroundings; even in company he was prone to stare pensively at nowhere in particular, his eyes unfocused, simply turning other matters around in his mind.

I remember him most clearly in the clothes he wore most often, his work clothes.  They were usually a matching set of forest-green, cuffed, cotton pants and a button-up-the-front collared shirt with breast pockets; together they had the appearance of a uniform.  He usually had a button or two open at the top and a hint of his sleeveless, ribbed undershirt might show—no chest hair though.  Nearly always he had an Eversharp automatic pencil handily clipped, diagonally, into his shirt-front.  His work pants had permanent stains, and small burn holes in them from arc welding in which he was something of a pioneer.  And his eyeglasses had minute particles of metal bonded to the glass; it took a moment to properly align the welding rod and the parts and then to start the arc before he assertively nodded-down the spring-loaded welding helmet.  He usually wore old ‘good shoes’ to work which were similarly spattered with welding effluvia.  He and my brother, and I, each had distinct sets of clothes for different activities: work clothes, clean work clothes for after work; and then we had “good clothes” which we wore if people were coming to visit or we were going to grandma’s, a nice shirt and pressed trousers.  And my dad also had a suit and tie for church, and for the rare going-out with my mom on a special occasion.

My father had been thrust rather early and abruptly into his role as a man: his father, Jim, suffered a heart attack and died in his early fifties.  In spite of this brief lifespan my grandfather had managed, precociously, to conceive with my grandmother three boys and eight girls, this richness of progeny unremarkable in those times.  Dad, the oldest boy of the family then, in traditional fashion, assumed, in the name of his mother, the management of F. S. Goetsch & Son, the family business, a blacksmith shop on Washington street in the center of Naperville.  Here, as I witnessed when quite young, horses were shod, plows sharpened and iron wrought using the classic implements of forge, anvil, and hammer, the vigorous blows building muscle and causing sparks to explode in all directions, thus blacksmiths usually wore leather aprons.

My dad didn’t like blacksmithing much, nor did he engage in it himself.  My uncle Ake—short for I don’t know what name—was the last black­smith at the shop.  My father, at bottom a modern man, thought smithing too old fashioned.  To make matters worse, that period of time, as nearly as I can calculate, would have been at about the start of the great depression.  As a consequence of this early stress—or perhaps only because of his German upbringing—later, in our own small family, money was never discussed in front of my brother and I; thus he gifted us the unfettered childhood he had been unable to enjoy and supplied us relatively liberally with the little pocket-money we needed in those innocent times.  This had its advantages: we worried about very little, my brother and I, and had an almost idyllic, secure and loving childhood.  Only later did I learn that this sheltering also carried a price.

When the time came for me to make a living, I had little idea of just how to go about it.  I don’t mean the discipline of work itself, at which I’d had plentiful experience from quite a  young age through working at the shop and at the quarry.  No, I refer to what is ordinarily the simple act of going out somewhere new, asking someone I didn’t know for work, selling myself as it were.  All my boyhood friends seemed to have managed this smoothly, but for me it seemed a high mountain to climb.  This memoir tells how I learned to do this or, perhaps more accurately, how I learned to muddle through it; I certainly never became used to it.  This very brief telling of why I think I came to grow up embarrassingly slowly testifies to my hazy understanding of the situation at the time; I was simply in a very familiar and comfortable world and I grew into it like a well-watered plant in fertile soil.  It was only later that I came to understand cause and effect.

It could easily be said, and not without some foundation, that I was simply a rather coddled and spoiled young boy, perhaps one of the first in the hardworking time and place of my Naperville days during the nineteen forties and fifties.  But in feeble defense I can say that I was raised with a strong—I seem, again, to want to say, German—work ethic, as were most of my peers.  The main difference between them and me was that my work was nearly always for my father; it was only on rare occasions that I actually worked at ‘outside’ jobs.

Emulating one’s friends is a very strong need in one’s early years and I sought these outside jobs simply because all my friends had them and it seemed to me something that I ought to do too; so I once had a paper route and later I pumped gas and cleaned windshields at a filling station in those long-ago days when drivers seemed unable to do this for themselves.  In these endeavors at some nominal independence I had to overcome the never-stated, but nonetheless real, negativity of my father.  Perhaps to him it seemed as though I was shunning his gift of a tranquil childhood.  I learned one thing though from these little jobs: At this work I found invariably that, in comparison, my father was by far my toughest taskmaster.

 

I

 had finished high school with mostly C’s, many D’s, the occasional B and the rare A.  I tried to avoid F’s because, lying below some undefined margin, they were likely to cause a stink at home.  An F would imply to my parents that I had become an obvious laggard, that I was not even trying—and that would have been impolite.  At any cost they wished to avoid a call from the school, so if I sunk that low I would have been sat down and given a little preaching, a situation I liked to avoid.  This unedifying scholastic record was achieved by my: learning to choose the least challenging subjects, avoiding homework as much as the traffic would bear and, as well, by learning to sign my own report card and forge my own absence-excuses. 

In my view, these subterfuges simply saved my parents considerable effort.  These deceits were possible I suppose because, though never stated, but in retrospect undoubtedly true, my parents—certainly my father—really didn’t feel strongly about education in the way that parents now seem to.  I think my father felt that one could achieve just about whatever one wished to achieve if one worked hard enough at it, as he did at the shop.  Men like Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and the other self taught entrepreneurs of the early 20th century, men of whom he had read, these were his role models.  He was mine.

Nevertheless, during the last year of high school, and in spite of my shaky scholastic record, I was encouraged by my folks—I suspect mainly, behind the scenes, by my mother, a college girl herself: Northwestern University, School of Nursing—to think about going to college.  I did visit several schools in and around Chicago including, most significantly, as I recall, the Illinois Institute of Technology, but I did it in a superficial, unenthusiastic manner just to sort of ‘try them on’ and to fulfill the obligation I felt had been thrust on me to at least look.  Whether I would have been accepted at any of these schools with my lackluster record did not seem significant then.  I don’t think that it was as important then as it seems to be now.  In any case, I already knew what I wanted to do, and it wasn’t college which, in my willfulness, seemed to me to be a quite unnecessary extension of high school, which I had disliked intensely.  I wanted to do real work at the shop and continue that life I thought of—without thinking—as my birthright.  And I did just that for a number of years.

Unfortunately, for my plan—though plan is perhaps too determined a word—it was only a short time after I had settled into shop work full time, and married, when my father’s interest in the shop began for some reason to wane.  After building the quarry house—which essentially shut the shop down for a year or more because the shop-men were building this house—he was never enthusiastic about the business after that.  He seemed to want to move on to new challenges.  In the last few years he had joined the Rotary Club and he even ran for, and was elected as, a city councilman.  As I recall it, he was put in charge of the city’s water and electric systems.  He later resigned this post because he disagreed with the Mayor on some matter or other which, characteristically, was never explained to my brother or to me.

Dad’s mother had died some years back and all his siblings were now grown.  I suppose he felt less personal responsibility in that respect by then.  His first major career move was to leave the shop altogether.  He became the president of a division of the Moser Lumber Company a firm which constructed what I suppose would today be called tract houses, though at the time they seemed rather fancy to native Napervillians.  This was the beginning of the ex-urban sprawl to the southwest of Chicago.  Besides selling lumber and other building materials, this company had become Naperville’s first major developer, the initial vehicle that was to carry Naperville from its origins as a small town based around farming—the town is, in fact, older than Chicago—to what is now, I am told, probably the second largest city in Illinois.  But in the process of my father’s changing of careers, the shop didn’t close; he simply left.  I remained working there while the other men gradually found new employment, often with the help of my father.

Dad.jpgGradually we ran out of work to do and in a rather short time I seemed to be there pretty much on my own.  Oddly, my father never explained this radical change to me other than the bare facts of the matter, and in fact he kept paying my modest salary at the shop.  Maybe he wanted to see if I could actually run the business—I couldn’t—or maybe it was just a typically subtle, non-vocal way to tell me that now it was finally time for me to move on and get to work at something or other of my own.  He did not articulate any of this nor, character­istically, did I ever question him about the matter, then or later.  We had a very intimate relationship, he and I, but I don’t recall that we ever spoke of personal or career matters with each other; somehow in our bond these were simply things to be learned on one’s own, or by reading the handwriting on the wall for oneself.  They were, in a sense, too personal to discuss.  Only much later, in retrospect, did this come to seem peculiar to me.

As that handwriting on the wall at the shop slowly came into focus I decided finally to look for work.  In fact by this time I had considerable experience for a person of my age at designing and constructing machinery, in electrical work, in tool and die making and even some experience in welding, not even to mention painting and cleaning toilets.  So I applied for work at a pretty large company in a nearby Chicago suburb.  It was for a job in tool and die making.  At the interview I explained my experience and they questioned me about it.  I thought I did pretty well, but one of the questions was, “What is the Brinnel hardness factor?”

Though we had built many tools and dies at the shop and hardened the steel as is required for such mechanisms, it was kind of an ad hoc operation. Perhaps some of the men had read a book here or there, but there was nothing in the way of formal training and I was quite at a loss to provide a definitive answer to the question asked, though I was familiar in general with the term.  I did not get the job.  Though I was smart, and quick to learn, I suppose I had an exaggerated idea of my capabilities and experience, or at least one that was difficult to convey to the managers of a professional company.

As I recall now, and to my considerable embarrassment, my next approach to finding work—and without the knowledge of my father, who certainly would not have approved—was to drive into Cicero, Illinois to the Hawthorne Works of the Western Electric Company.  My father had subcontracted quite a lot of work for the shop over a number of years from this huge company that had developed and supplied the majority of the equipment necessary for most of the world’s telephone companies.

One man there, his name was Gene Service—certainly a hopeful contraction  of a central European surname—had been my father’s primary contact at the company.  Cicero, not only Al Capone’s former headquarters, was then also informally called Little Bohemia, which is to say that there were plenty of Czechs working there.  Mr. Service must have been some sort of subcontract manager and, over the several years of business at the shop with Western Electric, he had become quite friendly with both my father and my mother.  Sometimes we traveled in cars together on brief vacations to one of the lakes of Wisconsin, my brother and I with our folks, he with one of his several girlfriends.  He and my folks liked to drink and talk and play cards or dice games, while my brother and I amused ourselves on our own out in the woods near some lake.

In visiting Mr. Service at the Hawthorne Works my reasoning went like this: Here was a man who at least had some familiarity with what I could do since of course he had been at the shop many times while I was working there.  His surprise to see me there in his office was considerable, as was mine to see him, because I found that he shared an office with someone else; I had assumed that he was much more highly placed in the company. He was even more surprised when I told him the reason for my visit: a job.

Although it had been some time since he and my father had had any dealings together, he was gentlemanly and perhaps he felt a little obligated to extend a helping hand to this raw young boy of his former friend—as, of course, had been my hope.  He indicated that he might be able to recommend me for a job as a millwright.  It was my understanding then that a millwright was someone who moved equipment around and this didn’t seem interesting to me at all.  He didn’t seem to know my capabilities as I had thought he might.  As I found out later, millwright work involves considerably more than just moving things around and in fact it matched the sort of work I was looking for pretty well. But in my naiveté, I just thanked him politely and left.

My uncle, Michael T. O’Connor, the husband of my father’s youngest sister, Helen, had worked at the shop as a bookkeeper, and he was my godfather.  Somehow at that time, perhaps with the aid of my aunt, he noticed me kind of floundering around, essentially alone there at the shop.  He had previously helped me earn a little extra money working with him to sand the new hardwood floors of the homes then being built by the Moser Lumber Company.  He now worked there full-time, I presume with the aid of my father.  This was the same company that my father worked for.  My uncle had connections there in Purchasing: wooden windows and doors and other millwork for the houses being built.  He sent me to a ‘frame and sash’ shop that he knew of.  They manufactured doors and windows.  It was in a suburb some miles in towards Chicago.  I was hired on the spot.

Though I didn’t realize it at the time, this seeming miracle was undoubtedly because my uncle bought material from them, my first encounter with big-business back scratching.  This tribal commonplace was at that time quite opaque to me.  Anyway, they put me to work, and at a pretty good wage too, certainly more than I had been making at the shop.  It wasn’t difficult work for me—I was used to saws and machine tools of all sorts—though it was pretty hot and sawdust was everywhere.  It was in the late summer as I recall.

The catch to this job, for me, was that I could only work a few days—I suppose they were trying me out—before I was required to join the union: The United Brotherhood Of Carpenters And Joiners Of America.  This union, as I was to find out later, is quite an old one, an amalgamation of carpenters’ unions of the English speaking world, and one with quite a history including, in Chicago, the Haymarket riots  in 1886.  The only part of this that bothered me was that it required an upfront fee of $300 to join.  This seemed like a helluva lot of money to me at the time.  (From the website, Measuring Worth, I find that this is the equivalent today of about $2300.)  And at that time I had little idea of what a union was, other than that they were to be found in big cities.

Somehow or other I came up with the money—my guess is that I borrowed some or all of it—and one evening after work I drove into the big city of Chicago to a rather dark and foreboding area, as it seemed to me then, to join the union.  Not knowing quite what to expect after my last experience at the tool and die company, and a little nervous that they would want to question me on my abilities, even perhaps test me on some equipment, I hesitantly walked down a dirty, unlit concrete half-stair to the Union’s small basement office.  I had $300 in cash in my pocket.

When I opened the door there were three rather large men in the small room, each with an appropriately large cigar in his mouth.  One had his feet up comfortably on an old wooden desk.  This one looked at me questioningly and said simply, without even taking the cigar out of his mouth: “Ya got cher money kid?”  His directness caught me by surprise, but I was sort of relieved too.  This looked simpler than I had imagined.  I pulled the large wad of bills out of my pocket and handed it over, and that was that.  I was in the Union.

As far as I know I am still a brother, though now some 50 years behind in my dues, because I was laid off a few months later on Christmas Eve of that year; the company had run out of work.  In some compensation, I joined the others in a line that had formed at the company door, was wished a no-big-deal farewell, and handed a bottle of Ancient Age whiskey.  This was how my opinion of the utility of unions was formed at a young age; it hasn’t changed much since, an admittedly rather small database, but it remains a vivid one.

After my last few painful tries at entering the ‘outside’ business world I had slowly begun to realize that I needed to learn some skill or trade that would be, so to speak, more definitive—and thus more ‘bankable’—than the rather amorphous work I had done at the shop, a little of this and a little of that.  I felt I needed something more proper, something that I could put a name to and say, “I do this.”

Now that I was once again unemployed, I one day noticed, as though for the first time, a small, stenciled sign on a door near a pharmacy on Washington street right in Naperville.  It led to a small engineering office, a door that I had passed many times before, but now I saw it with fresh eyes: Quilty Engineering Company.  Some few days after that, and after having mulled it over quite a bit, I got up my nerve and walked the steps up to the office to speak with the engineer.  Perhaps here I could get some training in a real profession.